After the frenetic activity of the first six months of the First World War, the Allies saw the Germans building very strong fortifications in their lines. These featured extensive use of concrete and the construction of Stellung, or strong points, that could repel any frontal assault. In due time, the idea was born that the way to break through these defenses might be to employ a swarm of moving mini-forts to lead the attack, impervious to opposing machine gun and rifle fire.
Louis Renault (1877-1944), along with his brothers Marcel and Fernand, ran the firm Société des Automobiles Renault, which had become the largest automobile manufacturer in France, specializing in taxi cabs, of which they were also the largest manufacturer in the world. Renault taxi cabs became famous due to their use in the “Miracle of the Marne” transfer of troops from the Paris garrison to attack the German right flank in September, 1914.
Louis was the designer and engineer, the brains of the business, as his brothers were salesmen and bookkeepers. His firm was solicited to produce for France one of these new combat vehicles that the British had code-named ‘tanks’. But what the generals wanted Louis deemed impossible. The desired tank would carry artillery and bristle with machine guns, requiring a large crew, and Louis knew that the available engines weren’t powerful enough. He determined that the horsepower to metric ton ratio (HP/MT) should be at least 7 to 1, and the designs being developed were far lower than that. Louis felt that under powered tanks would move too slowly and break down too often, so he passed on the procurement.
Eventually he was persuaded to take another look. The heavy tanks had performed pretty much the way he thought they would, and had thus far failed to play a significant role. However, tactical thinking was changing after the disastrous failure of frontal assaults, and there were now proponents of infiltrating attacks that would probe for weakness rather than try to crack the Stellungs head-on. This was an application of cavalry tactics, replacing the horse with a light, fast, maneuverable vehicle that, unlike horses, was impervious to machine guns, and Louis was interested in building such a tank.
What he came up with was the called the FT, later the FT-17 (the US built model was called the M-1917). It weighed 6.4 MT, much less than heavies (the British Mark IV weighed 28 MT) and the HP/MT ratio was about 6 to 1, not ideal but much better than the Mark IV’s 3.5. Due to its lighter weight, the FT could be transported on heavy trucks.
The engine was in the rear so the internal ventilation was effective and kept the tank free of fumes. With its asymmetric tracks the FT could climb steep embankments yet was small enough to go through a trench rather than over it. Since a major problem of the heavies was thrown tracks, Renault designed self- adjusting tensioners which significantly alleviated this problem.
The FT’s armament was either one 8mm machine gun or one 37mm cannon, either mounted in a turret that could be hand-cranked to rotate a full 360 degrees (no other WW1 tank had this capability). The crew was two men (driver and gunner) while the heavies typically had a crew of eight. And, because the weight of the engine, crew and armament was so much less, Renault was able to give the FT thicker frontal armor than that of any of the heavies.
The French Army ordered 3,530 of his tanks and 2,697 had been delivered before the Armistice. Renault’s firm made about half of these. About 200 were supplied to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), who had also ordered 4,440 of the M-1917 from U.S. manufacturers; only 950 were delivered before the Armistice and none saw combat.
The FT first appeared in battle during the Second Battle of the Marne. The AEF was eager to exploit the offensive potential of the FT, and on Sept. 12th, 1918, Lt. Col. George S. Patton led a battalion of FT’s from his 1st Provisional Tank Brigade in the St. Mihiel Offensive, the first cavalry-style tank attack, which gained significant chunks of territory. At times Patton actually walked in front of his lead tank to guide the column through difficult places. A few weeks later Patton again led 144 tanks from two battalions in the Meuse Argonne Offensive, until he was wounded at Cheppy. He wasn’t in his tank when shot and he was hit in the backside.
The FT and M-1917 tanks were ultimately used by 27 military forces from 1918 to 1949 in eleven different wars. The Wehrmacht captured over 1,700 FT’s in 1939-42 and used them primarily for patrol and police duty in occupation zones.
There are about seventy FTs and their derivatives still extant, including one at the National WW1 Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The one depicted above is at the Armistice Glade at Compiègne, France.